Conflict puts annual wine tasting in question

Organizer alleges a 2009 sponsor backed-out of a pledged contribution

CARAG — The future of a wine tasting event that each year raised thousands of dollars for Uptown-area neighborhood groups was in question in April.

Pat Fleetham, who organized the annual community wine tasting benefit for more than one-third of its 27-year history, sent an e-mail to neighborhood leaders in March telling them there would be no spring wine tasting.

“Last year we had a participant ‘back out’ on their pledged donation,” he wrote in the e-mail, a copy of which was forwarded to the Southwest Journal. “As a result of the loss of this planned revenue we can no longer afford to present this worthwhile event.”

Contacted by e-mail while traveling out of the country, Fleetham identified the participant as Southwest developer Clark Gassen. Gassen said he met with Fleetham and helped arrange sponsors for last year’s wine tasting, but maintained he never agreed to make a donation.

Event founder and Hennepin Lake Liquors owner Phil Colich said he would wait until Fleetham returned to the country in mid-April to discuss plans for a 2010 wine tasting.

“I hope it’s going to happen this year,” Colich said. “I most certainly would like to do it.”

For at least some of the nine neighborhood organizations that benefit from the wine tasting, the loss of the event would be a significant blow. Neighborhood organizations keep all of the revenue from tickets sales they make themselves, as well as a portion of sales made at Hennepin Lake Liquors and at the door of the event.

CARAG Executive Coordinator Scott Engel said the neighborhood’s 2010 budget anticipated about $3,000 in ticket sales, although the total has been higher in some years. That one event accounts for half of the anticipated fundraising CARAG will do all year, Engel said.

“It’s close to 10 percent of the overall budget for the year,” he added.

Peter Levine of the East Isles Residents Association said last year wine tasting ticket sales raised about $3,600 for that organization, more than half its 2009 revenue.

Gassen expressed surprise when told Fleetham’s side of the story.

“He (Fleetham) came down to our office,” Gassen said. “I tried to put him in touch with a few people I know in the restaurant business to help him out.”

Gassen said he helped Fleetham arrange $1,000 sponsorships for the benefit from Cowboy Slim’s and Stella’s Fish Café. Last year, the wine tasting was held in a tent on the street between the two Uptown restaurants.

Fleetham said Gassen also promised a share of revenue from the parking lot behind Cowboy Slim’s, but never came through with the money. His account differed significantly from Gassen’s.

A minority partner in the parking lot, Gassen said he would not have had the legal authority to pledge that night’s revenues on his own. He also could not afford a donation at that time, he added.

Gassen is perhaps best known as the developer behind numerous condominium conversions at the height of the condo boom. That bubble has since burst.

“Let people know I would be willing to help out or try to raise money, but I don’t have funds,” he said.